UMSL graduates Stephanie Cernicek and Aaron Golchert lead Mana Supply Company, a fast-growing cannabis manufacturing startup in St. Louis
When Stephanie Cernicek was finishing up her PhD in chemistry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2017, she assumed that, like many of her classmates, she’d head into the pharmaceutical industry upon graduation. But, as luck would have it, the owner of BeLeaf’s Life Oils reached out to the department chair looking for someone who could help extract hemp for the company’s infused tinctures.
Missouri had recently passed a bill allowing those licensed through the state’s Department of Agriculture to grow hemp and convert it into CBD oil strictly for use by people with intractable epilepsy. Along with Noah’s Ark Foundation, which now operates in the cannabis industry as Mana Supply Company, BeLeaf was one of two companies in Missouri to receive this license. Cernicek interviewed for the position, wound up getting it, and spent several years working at BeLeaf.
“It was a very, very narrow bill – we probably had a couple hundred patients, if that,” Cernicek said. “But it was sort of the jumpstart, a pre-emptive to a cannabis program in the state.”
Over the years, Cernicek, who also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UMSL, has become a prominent name in Missouri’s cannabis industry, from the early days of CBD all the way up to the legalization of adult-use marijuana earlier this year. She serves on multiple boards of various organizations within the industry, has several different certifications and works as a faculty member in Saint Louis University’s Cannabis Science and Operations certificate program. She has been recognized widely for her work in the industry; she was named a C-Suite award winner from the St. Louis Business Journal in 2021, and just this year was named Woman of the Year in Missouri by Greenway Magazine.
For the past few years, Cernicek has worked as the chief science officer at Mana Supply Co., a multi-state cannabis company with a manufacturing facility located in Berkeley, Missouri. Cernicek came to Mana just a month after fellow UMSL alum Aaron Golchert, who earned his BSBA in management from UMSL in 2007, joined the company as its first sales person after selling a successful magazine franchise he started in college. Not long after joining Mana in September of 2021, Golchert was promoted to director of business development and, just a few months ago, became the company’s vice president of sales.
Golchert, who was heavily involved in different student organizations while at UMSL, served one term on the UMSL Alumni Governing Board of Directors, received the Rising Star Award from the College of Business Administration in 2016 and received the Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2018, now oversees Mana’s sales – which have skyrocketed in the wake of the recent legalization of adult-use cannabis in Missouri. In 2022, the company was averaging $83,000 a month in sales, and that number is now closer to $1 million each month.
“In the medical market, when you’re doing sales, for the most part you’re begging dispensaries for shelf space,” he said. “Adult-use came, and dispensaries are begging us to make more product for them to have on their shelves because they’re running out of product that quickly. It’s wild how much has changed in just the last six months.”
As a contract manufacturing company, Mana is well-suited to serve the growing demand for cannabis. It operates a manufacturing facility in Berkeley, Missouri, as well as a few dispensaries in Colorado and Maryland, and is structured a little differently than other cannabis companies.
“We will make anything for everyone,” Cernicek said. “So that gets us a lot of throughputs in our facility. We make products that aren’t just products that we’re selling; we make products that other companies sell. We’ll make it, ship it off, and then they’ll handle selling it. It gets a lot of products out there in the market. Whereas other companies might only be focusing on their internal brands, our goal is to do that contract manufacturing and bring licensed brands from other states in.”
“They basically are selling us the recipe that we make and sell because the cannabis, from the seed being grown to manufactured and sold, has to stay within state lines,” Golchert added. “So anything that does come from a headquarters in California or Washington – there’s no THC in it. It’s the packaging or the raw ingredients to make the product, but the THC all has to be grown in Missouri. So we do that infusion part in St. Louis.”
With that in mind, Mana produces a range of products, including edibles, extracts, tinctures, topicals and vapes. Popular brands that Mana has helped bring to the Missouri market include Kizmet, a line of high-quality, handcrafted chocolates; midose., a line of vape pens and melts designed for microdosing for people new to cannabis; Escape Artists, a premium line of topical creams; Dabstract, a line of live resin vape cartridges and concentrates; Fuzzee Water, a brand-new seltzer company that Mana is bringing into the cannabis market; and, recently, Bhang, the best-selling THC-infused chocolate brand in North America.
But as demand for these products continues to grow in Missouri, Golchert said there’s still work to be done with regard to negative stigmas surrounding cannabis.
“It’s still a very young market in Missouri, and there’s still a lot of education that needs to happen,” Golchert said. “There are plenty of products that exist that provide perfectly legitimate uses beyond just ‘getting high.’ One of the new brands we just launched last week, Escape Artists, you literally can’t get high from. It’s a topical, you put it on your skin to help with muscle pain and joint issues. There’s still THC in it, but it doesn’t have that purpose.”
And while neither Cernicek nor Golchert had envisioned a future working in cannabis, they’re both proud to work in a budding industry full of interesting people who are passionate about the plant.
“I like the people,” Cernicek said. “There is a huge variety of people that are in this field – you’ve got doctors and lawyers and scientists, people that are just super enthusiastic about the plant. It’s a really exciting industry. I think that when both of us graduated from UMSL, it’s definitely not where we thought we would be. But it’s really awesome. It’s a fun job and we both love working with Mana and in the cannabis industry in general.”
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